Dniepr Airborne Operation

The 'Dniepr Airborne Operation' was a Soviet undertaking to reinforce and thereby speed the progress of the land forces involved in the 'Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation' (24 September/24 November 1943).

As the Soviet forces drove toward the Dniepr river during the later part of September 1943 in the hope of securing strategic bridgeheads across this great waterway before the retreating German forces could establish strong defences on its western bank, the Stavka detached General Leytenant Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army from General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front for attachment to General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front to race the weakening Germans to the Dniepr river, to save the wheat crop of this part of Ukraine from the German scorched earth policy, and to achieve strategic- or operational-level bridgeheads before a German defence could be stabilised on the western bank. Moving at high speed, the 3rd Tank Army reached the river on the night of 21/22 September and, on the following day, Soviet infantry crossed the river, some of them by swimming and others through the use of makeshift rafts to secure small and fragile bridgeheads, opposed only by 120 Germans from the non-commissioned candidates of the Cherkassy anti-aircraft academy and the hard-pressed 19th Panzeraufklärungsabteilung of Generalleutnant Hans Källner’s 19th Panzerdivision of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee within Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. These were the only German forces within 37.5 miles (60 km) of the Dniepr river 'loop' of this area. Only the combination of a major German air attack and their lack of bridging equipment prevented the Soviets from sending reinforcements and heavy weapons across the river to reinforce and enlarge the bridgehead.

Appreciating that this was a critical point in their offensive, the Soviets ordered hastily ordered the creation and implementation of an airborne corps assault to increase the size of the bridgehead before the Germans could counterattack and destroy it. On 21 September, the Voronezh Front’s 1st, 3rd and 5th Guards Airborne Brigades were instructed to secure, just two days later, a bridgehead perimeter between 9.33 and 12.5 miles (15 and 20 km) wide and 18.5 miles (30 km) deep on the Dniepr 'loop' between Kanev and Rzhishchev, to the south-east of Kiev, while the front’s ground forces crossed the river in larger numbers.

The airborne units arrived only slowly at the designated airfields, and this meant that on 23 September the planned operation was delayed by one day and lost the services of the 1st Guards Airborne Brigade. The changes caused what was little short of chaos in the relevant command echelons. Mission change orders finally got down to company commanders on 24 September a mere 15 minutes before their units, none of which had yet received its spades, anti-tank mines or clothing for the autumn night frosts, assembled on their airfields. Moreover, problematical weather conditions meant that not all of the assigned transport aircraft had reached the airfields, and those which had arrived were very late to do so. Many if not most flight safety officers refused to allow the maximum loading of the aircraft, moreover. The combination of fewer aircraft and lighter loading limits meant that the master loading plan was now irrelevant and was abandoned. Much radio equipment and large quantities of supplies were left behind. At best, it would require three lifts to deliver the two brigades. Still arriving by the over-taxed railway system, the airborne units were loaded piecemeal onto returned aircraft, which could be refuelled only slowly as a result of the fuel trucks' lower-than-expected capacities. Meanwhile, men who had already arrived had to change aircraft as they attempted to board earlier flights. Urgency and the fuel shortage prevented the assembly of aircraft formations after the transports had taken off, so most of the aircraft, as soon as they had been loaded and fuelled, flew in single file rather than in line abreast, to the dropping points. Assault waves became as intermingled as the units they carried.

As corps elements made their flights, the troops, of whom half had never before jumped except from training towers, were briefed on drop zones, assembly areas and objectives only poorly understood by platoon commanders still studying new orders. Meanwhile, early in the afternoon, Soviet aerial reconnaissance, which had been suspended for several days as a result of the adverse weather, missed the strong German reinforcement of the area. Non-combat cargo pilots ferrying the 3rd Guards Airborne Brigade through thin rain, therefore foresaw no resistance beyond river pickets, but were instead greeted by anti-aircraft fire and flares from the 19th Panzerdivision, which happened to be passing through the drop zone, and suffered very heavy losses. The leading aircraft, disgorging paratroopers over Dubari at 19.30, came under fire from elements of Oberstleutnant Rudolf Köhler’s 73rd Panzergrenadierregiment and the divisional staff of the 19th Panzerdivision. Some paratroopers began to return fire and throw grenades while still in the air, and following aircraft accelerated, climbed and evaded, as a consequence dropping their troopers wide of the designated drop zones. Through the night, some pilots totally avoided dropping points illuminated by star shells, and 13 aircraft returned to their airfields without having dropped at all. Intending a drop in a largely undefended area measuring 6.2 by 8.7 miles (10 by 14 km), the Soviets instead dropped in an area measuring 18.5 by 56 miles (30 by 90 km) and occupied by the fastest mobile elements of two German corps.

On the ground, the Germans used the Soviet troopers' white parachutes as beacons to hunt and destroy disorganised groups and to gather or destroy air-dropped supplies. Thus the area of the landing became illuminated and scattered pattern of burning supplies, glowing embers and multi-coloured star shells Captured documents also provided the Germans with sufficient data about the Soviet objectives to make it possible for then to reach most of them before the disorganised paratroopers could do so.

On the Soviet airfields, the fuel shortage allowed the despatch of only 298 of 500 planned sorties, leaving the airborne corps' anti-tank guns and 2,017 paratroopers undelivered. Of 4,575 men dropped (just 70% of the planned total and including only 1,525 men of the 5th Guards Airborne Brigade), some 2,300 eventually assembled into 43 extemporised groups, with their planned missions abandoned as impossible, and spent most of their time seeking supplies which had as yet not been destroyed by the Germans. Other men joined with the nine partisan groups operating in the area. About 230 men joined units of the front after crossing the river or being dropped there. Almost all of the rest were killed or taken prisoner during that first night and the following day. Even so, during the first night one company of the 73rd Panzergrenadierregiment sustained heavy losses as it destroyed about 150 paratroopers near Grushevo, some 1.85 miles (3 km) to the west of Dubari.

The Germans underestimated the Soviet drop as between 1,500 and 2,000 men, and recorded 901 paratroopers captured and killed in the first 24 hours. Thereafter, they largely ignored the paratroopers, to facilitate their counterattacks on the Dniepr river bridgeheads. The Germans deemed their efforts against the paratroopers complete by 26 September, although the surviving paratroopers made a few opportunistic attacks on garrisons, railway lines and columns in the time up to early November. For a lack of the German strength to clear all areas, paratrooper elements in region’s forests remained a minor threat.

The Germans recorded the 'Dniepr Airborne Operation' as a fundamentally sound idea spoiled by the the planners' lack of expert knowledge, but praised individual paratroopers for their tenacity, bayonet skills and clever use of adverse terrain in the sparsely wooded northern region. The Stavka deemed this second and, as it emerged, last corps-level drop to be a complete failure, and that the lessons they knew they had already learned from their corps-sized drop at Vyaz’ma in the previous winter had not been implemented.

Podpolkovnik Sidorchuk, the commander of the 5th Guards Airborne Brigade, withdrew to the forests farther to the south and eventually amassed a brigade-sized command with about equal numbers of paratrooper and partisans. He organised air supply, and assisted the 2nd Ukrainian Front (latterly the Steppe Front) to cross the Dniepr river near Cherkassy and finally linked with the front’s forces on 15 November. After 13 more days of combat, the airborne element was evacuated.

More than 60% of the paratroopers committed to this seriously flawed operation did not return from it.